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Chapter 15: Theater of Taunts

Updated: Jul 7, 2023




What Eni saw was as magical as anything she had seen Tsar do; it was as though she was looking at a castle with a wall peeled away. A magnificent courtyard had been revealed by the curtains moving out of view, one with sculpted bushes and carefully tended flowers. A carved stone fountain burbled gently, filling a small pond topped with water lilies. But somehow, and Eni couldn't even guess how it had been done, it looked as though it was midday although she knew that the sun had already set. Warm golden light suffused the scene, catching the craggy stone walls that defined the courtyard and making the vines that crept up them glow. Magnificent stained-glass windows sparkled in the light, and while Eni knew that what was behind them could only possibly be the backstage area the illusion of reality was utterly convincing.

At the center of the courtyard, two kangaroos were in the midst of a duel with wooden practice swords, one male and one female. The female kangaroo was elegantly built, her body lithe and curvaceous. Her thin gown swirling around her as she thrust and parried with her blade, the fine silk garment a curious contrast to the padded armor she wore over it. The male kangaroo was far brawnier and far more practically dressed; his trousers and tunic were plain gray cotton, cinched at his ankles and wrists, and the armor he wore was battered and scuffed. His features were ruggedly angular, a long scar on one cheek marring his otherwise perfect looks. The male kangaroo's fighting style was grimly efficient, the female kangaroo barely able to keep up.

They circled the fountain, their blades furiously striking against each other as blow after blow was attempted and deflected, and then the male kangaroo made a mistake. He stumbled over a flagstone that stood ever so slightly higher than the ones that surrounded it, and with a cry of delight the female kangaroo thrust her sword forward. Rather than passing through the opening in his guard, however, her sword suddenly caught against his. With dizzying speed, the male's blade had come into the perfect position, and he knocked the female's sword out of her paw and stabbed her in the center of her chest.

The female kangaroo grunted, her eyes widening as she lost her balance and stumbled backwards. Before she could fall into the fountain, the male's paw shot out and grabbed her, pulling her upright. "You fought well, princess," he said as he dropped his own weapon.

His voice was deep and sonorous, seeming to effortlessly fill the vast theater. "But your heart didn't seem to be in sparring today," he continued, "So simple a trick ought not to have worked. Have I not told you? You—"

"Yes, yes, I know, Thaniel," the princess interrupted, "'In battle, you must empty your mind of distractions.'"

Her voice was rich and cultivated, her Circi colored with a refined Zergun accent. Thaniel laughed as he let the princess's paw go. "So you do listen," he said, "Tell me, princess, what worries fill your mind today? You know I would do anything for you."

The male kangaroo's voice held the utter essence of sincerity, his eyes warmly regarding the princess. "I—" she began, "It is only—"

She nervously licked at her lips, fumbling over her words. As she opened her mouth to speak again, a door to the courtyard suddenly flew open. "Emilina! Emilina!" the newcomer cried.

His voice was quavery with age, and his appearance matched. He was an elderly kangaroo, the fur of his muzzle turning white and his back slightly stooped. Despite his somewhat feeble appearance, however, he presented an unquestionably royal air. A richly embroidered purple cloak swirled around his narrow shoulders, and a golden circlet atop his head flashed in the light.

"What is it, father?" Princess Emilina asked, running over to the older kangaroo and grasping his paws.

"Oh, Emilina," he said, panting as he caught his breath, "I have news. The most wonderful news! It's… It's the Greniernan-Slaenai!"

Despite his shortness of breath, absolute reverence filled his voice as he spoke. "The Slayer?" Thaniel asked, his voice full of respect even as he used the more common title.

Thaniel walked over to where the other two kangaroos stood and began to say, "Do you mean—"

"It's the last Labor!" the older kangaroo interrupted as though he had not heard Thaniel speak, "He smote it! Don't you understand, dear daughter?"

He beamed as he clutched at Emilina's paws. "The Scourge is over! His work is done!" the old kangaroo shouted, unrestrained joy illuminating his face.

"Why, that's wonderful news!" Emilina said, beaming back at him.

"But that's not the half of it!" her father said, "He's coming this way; Duke Yelsin's scouts have invited him and he's accepted. Didn't I tell you I made you the perfect match? Your marriage to the duke shall have the greatest guest of honor we could ever hope for! Oh, the Mother has truly blessed you with a wedding gift beyond compare! No one could possibly forget it or how lovely you'll look."

He laughed heartily, seeming almost delirious with delight. "Come, come, Captain Thaniel, we must make the arrangements for the Slayer's honor guard," he cried, speaking to the male kangaroo for the first time, "Emilina, I'll send the servants to your chambers with your finest silks."

Her father's eyes roamed up and down her, taking in the peculiar way she was dressed. "You'll have to look the part of Zergun's princess when we welcome the Slayer to our castle," he said.

"Yes, father," Emilina replied, curtsying, and he nodded eagerly.

"There's no time to waste!" her father cried, and he seized Thaniel by the wrist and started dragging him away, "It's only a matter of hours before he arrives."

"We'll finish our lesson another time, your majesty," Thaniel said with a slight smile as he passed through the threshold and the door slammed shut behind him.

Emilina waved weakly, and as the last echo of the door's forceful closure faded she sighed, sitting on the edge of the fountain and running her fingers through it as she began to sing.

A princess is a maiden of high virtue,

And ever she sought to do her part.

A passion I wish I outgrew

With but a key to a tender heart.

Would the Slayer remember the day

When a traveler he met and saved?

Those feelings there I've put away,

In aching turmoil pulling me astray.

How am I to forget how well he braved

Upon villains who caught me at play?

Before the sunset a gift he gave

A gaze that freezes this sorry prey.

Duke Yelsin is a noble of high virtue,

A true master of most every art,

And for him my passion is due.

Only one holds the key to my heart!

My duty is now clear beyond any doubt,

This I swear to all who would listen!

I have known there's no other route,

And I must draw on my discipline!

All my hopes I shall now discard,

Those burning dreams that have grown brighter,

But the Slayer's grasp is on my heart!

Yes, it is he who held the key from the start.

Although Eni had never seen The Sunset Story performed, she had read the play and knew that the curtain should have come across for the scene to change. She was ready to applaud the kangaroo's incredible performance, but as the actress reached the door out of the courtyard something incredible happened. The entire set began to rotate, spinning slowly and noiselessly as it revealed that the courtyard set was simply a wedge on a giant circular platform set into the stage.

As the platform spun, an elaborate throne room was coming into view, Princess Emilina's father atop his carved wooden throne and Captain Thaniel standing in burnished metal armor to his side. Princess Emilina disappeared from view as she entered a short hallway running through the wall dividing the courtyard part of the set from the throne room, and when she emerged her costume had completely changed.

The kangaroo was wearing a magnificent gown with an elaborate skirt and a top so covered with sequins that it shimmered. The lighting had changed along with the scene, the throne room seeming illuminated by torchlight. Enormous mullioned windows behind the throne showed a rainy view of a field, droplets of water striking the windows and running down them. The illusion was perfect; as Eni watched there was a flash of lightning followed by the crash of thunder.

As Emilina entered the scene, her father gestured at a smaller throne to his side. "You look lovely, my dear," he beamed, "Were your mother only here to see you. Wouldn't you agree, Captain Thaniel?"

Thaniel flinched as though someone had pinched him. "Of course, your majesty!" he said, the insides of his ears flushing as his perfect posture became somehow straighter, "Princess Emilina, you are an unequaled vision of beauty."

"Thank you, father, and thank you, Captain Thaniel," Emilina said, giving her father a full curtsy and the guard a slight nod of her head.

She took her seat at her father's side, looking out into the audience. The thrones were set atop a tall platform with a dozen marble steps leading up to them, a plush carpet running down the middle of the steps. Dozens of mammals in faultless uniforms stood at attention on either side of the carpet, their backs perfectly straight as they held spears aloft.

The orchestra, hidden away in a pit where Eni couldn't see them, began playing again. Solemn drums dominated the theater, the reverberations filling Eni's chest.

"He arrives!" Emilina cried, pointing out into the audience.

As she did, a limelight suddenly snapped into existence and threw a brilliant light toward the back of the theater. The music swelled, and Eni looked on in amazement at the figure that stood there highlighted. He was a tall and muscular wolf, dressed in an elegantly simple fashion. He wore a billowy white tunic over a tight pair of matching trousers, and his long white cape seemed almost to float around him as though it was utterly weightless. His fur was as black as the bottom of a mine shaft, except for the underside of his muzzle, two spots above his eyes, and the insides of his ears, which were all as white as snow.

A thick and segmented whip-sword was coiled around his waist like a massive belt, and his forearms and shins were covered with gleaming silver armor. The wolf began walking toward the stage, his every movement seeming to hide elegance and power, and the closer he got the louder the music became. He made a massive leap onto the stage, clearing a vertical distance of at least ten feet, but Eni couldn't see any wires or other assistance. As the actor playing the Slayer stepped onto the thick red carpet leading up to the thrones, he turned to the audience and began to sing.

Long have I traveled and much have I fought,

Foes of children, their mothers and their bane

And now begins an era my sinews have wrought,

On the heap of all that I've slain!

But what's left for a slayer? How will I feign

Delight to give up my torn cape and my sword?

Are there calls of the duties to make me remain,

Or with one final Labor is peace assured?

Knowing nothing but violence, have I now come unmoored?

Serving kings and their realms all these years.

But what struggle is tireless? Who'll hear of my fears?

With nothing more than your boisterous cheers?

Resolute for all others, to duty I've held,

And for duty I know what comes next:

For two final acts, at last I'm compelled,

First accept these honors, though I am vexed,

By pageantry beyond my humble desires,

Though for duty's sake I'll stand in this hall,

And second, to cast myself into the fires

To now fade from the memory of all!

Should I sit to hear plights, I'd be drawn to the call

To settle scores, both those great and small.

So at last these duties I'll humbly fulfill,

I swear now, free your ears, heed my will!

For I am a warrior, not a lord nor a king,

Upon the Mother by truth and by troth,

Here now are the news that forth shall I sing

At long last I have done duties enough.

On the world's stage I'll leave no trace,

The Slayer shall fade, his work done,

And they shall forget even my face,

As surely as daylight's oblivion.

The wolf's voice was sonorous and deep, filling the theater, and his brilliantly blue eyes caught the limelight illuminating his face. As he sang, the guards had gone into an elaborately choreographed dance around him, and the stage lighting became ethereal and dreamlike.

As the last notes faded, the wolf turned around and finished climbing the stairs up to the thrones before prostrating himself before the two kangaroos. "Your majesties," he said, "I am honored by your hospitality."

"The honor is all mine," the king said, struggling to push himself to his feet, and the elderly kangaroo clumsily bowed.

He motioned for his daughter to do the same, and Emilina curtsied in a far more elegant fashion. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance," the Slayer said, his voice warmly pleasant.

"We have met before, Master Slayer," Emilina replied, "Ten years ago, my mother and I were in a caravan beset by bandits. You stopped them."

The Slayer's face seemed to momentarily brighten, as though he was illuminated from within. "Oh!" he cried, "You were the little roo I met in the meadows outside Darsik. By the Mother, you've grown."

Then, just as quickly as it had brightened, the wolf's enthusiasm dimmed. "I am only sorry I did not arrive in time to save your mother," he said, his voice soothingly sympathetic, "I understand if that makes our reunion a painful one."

"Oh, no, no!" Emilina said hastily, clutching her paws to her generous bosom, "I owe you my life, Master Slayer. My debt to you may never be repaid."

"I am not one to tally scores, Princess Emilina," the Slayer replied, but he was smiling slightly, "There is no debt."

Thaniel was looking at the pair with a somewhat worried expression, his eyes darting from the kangaroo's face to the Slayer's and back. "Such is the magnanimity of the Slayer!" he blurted, and the king turned upon him.

"Remember your place, Captain Thaniel," he said frostily, "Your impudence is an affront to the Hero of Zergun and brings shame to myself and the House of Relistan."

"I am sure Captain Thaniel meant no disrespect," the Slayer replied easily, "I do what my abilities demand of me."

"Of course, of course," the king replied, his face showing utter relief that the Slayer hadn't been offended, "Please, Master Slayer, my daughter's wedding is planned to take place three days from now. It would be the greatest honor Zergun has ever had to host you and celebrate your great triumph."

"I am honored to accept your generosity," the Slayer replied, bowing low, but when he straightened back up Emilina recoiled in horror.

"Master Slayer!" she cried, reaching out one paw, "You're injured!"

She brushed her fingers against his chest and they came away bloody, glistening red in the limelight. "A minor injury inflicted by the Wocoro," the Slayer replied, dismissively waving one paw, "I've had much worse."

"By the Mother, how do you still stand?" Emilina replied, "A lesser mammal would surely be dead of such a grievous wound. Please, you must allow me to minister to it. Come along."

The Slayer tried protesting again, but the princess swept around him, placing one arm across his shoulder and supporting him as she led him across the stage to the opposite side of the entrance she had entered the throne room set from. As they turned, Eni saw that the formerly glistening white of the Slayer's tunic had become stained red, rivulets running down and ruining his trousers.

Once they had exited, the king turned to Captain Thaniel. "I apologize for the public rebuke, my old friend," he said, "But nothing may go wrong."

The kangaroo nodded, his face grimly set. "I understand, your majesty. Your daughter's…" he said, his face twitching before he could force himself to continue, "Your daughter's wedding must proceed smoothly."

"That it must," the king replied, appearing blissfully ignorant of Thaniel's tell, "But there is another task, just as important as the wedding we must accomplish. Perhaps even more important."

"Your majesty?" Thaniel asked.

"Is it not obvious?" the king replied, "The Slayer is injured, and shall need to recover. He surely intends to continue his travels after the wedding, but tell me, Captain Thaniel, why ought he to leave?"

The king paced around his throne room, and then with the sudden energy of a much younger mammal he swirled his cloak around his stooped shoulders and stood up straighter. As he did, a limelight suddenly winked into life, throwing him into sharp relief as he burst into song.

Even as the first notes filled Eni's ears, however, her focus on the enthralling play before her was interrupted by a dismissive snort coming from behind her. She nearly jumped; Eni had all but forgotten that she was not alone in the booth. Besides Tsar, Sabor, Kera, Aza, and the looming presence of Signa, a number of other predators who were obviously part of the Jaws delegation had joined them immediately before the play had started. Eni hadn't paid them any mind, as they had previously been watching quietly, but she sneaked a look over her shoulder. A slim male cheetah, thinner even than Tsar, seemed to be the one who had snorted, and he elbowed a thickly muscled lioness. "As though the Slayer would ever turn pitanipodonok," he muttered in Jarku.

The lioness chuckled appreciatively, but Eni frowned.

She had never heard the word pitanipodonok before, but she knew Jarku well enough to know what it would literally mean. The metaphor didn't translate into Modern Circi very well, but the most charitable way to render "Gets his cock wet instead of his mouth" was "food fucker," which could only be a grave insult. The two large cats fell silent after their little joke, but with her immersion broken Eni suddenly found it difficult to concentrate on the play again.

The rest of the first act passed in a blur, as the Slayer onstage and Princess Emilina got ever closer, the princess utterly ignorant of the love that Captain Thaniel had developed for her. Duke Yelsin showed up, played by a fantastically shifty-looking deer, and his scheming became more and more obvious until the act hit its climax.

Eni had never seen anyone more handsome than the actor playing the Slayer; his features looked almost sculpted and he seemed to radiate charisma like heat off a fire. Every word he spoke or sang was utterly masculine, and the actress playing Emilina was his perfect counterpart. She was the very essence of sweet and demure femininity, but her apparent delicacy hid an iron will and drive. After a particularly daring escape that left the two hanging from a balcony by the Slayer's whip-sword, the kangaroo and the wolf gazed into each other's eyes, their muzzles getting closer and closer. Emilina clung to the Slayer's muscular chest, and the pair began to sing.

Although every song that had been in the play up to that point had been performed so well that Eni couldn't imagine any way to make improvements, their duet was beyond anything she had ever heard anywhere. Both mammals sang of their duties and the temptation to give in to what they knew the other desired, and as the last notes filled the theater Emilina boldly kissed the Slayer.

Eni felt her eyes becoming wet with the bittersweet joy of their doomed relationship, and when Duke Yelsin revealed himself to the audience to have engineered the bandit attack that cost Emilina's mother her life, she had never hated a character in a story more. Until, that was, his other monstrous deeds came to light, from how he had manipulated her father for years to the spine-chilling ways he had ensured Emilina would have no other suitors vying to marry her. When he vowed that he would poison Emilina and the Slayer to ensure that the royal family did not gain a powerful ally that would fight him for control of Zergun Eni almost booed him, as she could faintly hear a few mammals in the worst and cheapest seats doing. But they were quickly drowned out as, on that dramatic proclamation, the curtains closed and thunderous applause filled the theater.

The lighting gradually came up and there was a great deal of shuffling and chatter Eni could hear as mammals got out of their seats and made their way to the lobby. On the precious few occasions Eni had been able to afford a theater ticket of her own, she had been a part of that crowd catching a quick break to use the facilities or grab a drink. As a guest of Avamezin, however, she was led with the rest of his delegation to an ostentatiously plush private room as large as a tavern and with a bar stocked far better than any she had ever visited before.

Warmly polished brass metalwork ran across the gleaming white stone of the room, and the ceiling was so high overhead that it disappeared in the pleasantly dim light. The reason for why the space was so cavernous quickly became obvious; Queen Marsenn was present, the giraffe looming above even the tallest members of Aza's group. But it was not just the delegation from the Jaws that she utterly dwarfed; Eni saw that King Renald and what could only be his retinue was also present. Up close, the rhinoceros was even bulkier than he had looked from a distance, but he moved with a surprising quiet grace. Eni caught a glimpse of Signa sizing him up; the massive polar bear was ever so slightly taller and broader. Signa showed no sign of being intimidated, and his master didn't either. As he strode into the room, Aza's face lit up. "King Renald!" he cried in his slightly accented Circi, "How wonderful it is to meet you at last."

As the tiger began bringing his paws together in a formal Carnaron greeting, Renald's own meaty hoof shot out and gripped Aza's right paw with what looked to Eni like crushing force. Aza gave no sign of discomfort, however, firmly pumping the rhinoceros's thick arm. "Likewise," King Renald said, curtly nodding his head.

His voice was deep and as unpleasantly gravelly as if he had swallowed rocks. Renald's small and cold black eyes stared down into Aza's face, his massive nostrils flaring.

"I expected the tyrant Tirendin to show up himself," Renald said, and Eni was surprised to hear the words were in Jarku, "Or has he grown too feeble to travel?"

The rhinoceros's voice was even rougher in the carnivore's tongue and carried a strong accent, but there was no mistaking his choice of words. Aza, however, did not appear offended. "My father's title is 'Caiser,'" he said mildly in Jarku, "'Not 'tyrant.'"

"My mistake," Renald said in Circi as he let go of Aza's paw.

"I do appreciate your concern for his health," Aza added, smiling pleasantly, "Roren has blessed him with an indomitable constitution. But I fear the demands of ruling Carnaron weigh too heavily on his brow to permit his presence here."

Renald made a low sound deep in his throat that sounded like a castle collapsing, but before he could say anything else Queen Marsenn had swooped next to him. "King Renald, Archduke Avamezin," she said, "I'm sure the eagerness you both show bodes well for when the talks begin tomorrow."

The giraffe's voice was kindly and yet firm; Eni could hear an unspoken warning in it. "But please, Archduke, you simply must introduce me to your lovely family," the queen continued, and Aza dutifully did so.

As he did, Eni became aware of King Renald's eyes upon her; he was staring her down with an appraising air she didn't much care for. Tsar was close by, but his attention seemed to be drifting around the room. The wolf had his head cocked to the side and he was apparently scenting the air, his eyes half-closed. He seemed almost disappointed, his ears slightly tucked back, but no one else did more than glance at the apparent bodyguard. "A spoil from your conquests?" Renald asked abruptly, rudely pointing at Eni after Aza had finished introducing Queen Marsenn to Sabor.

Aza chuckled. "The Concurrence has no designs on conquest," he said, a slight smile touching his muzzle, "We are quite happy with how our borders currently stand."

Renald's dour features somehow became even more grim, but Avamezin didn't seem to notice. "This is my friend and guest for the evening, Eni Siverets," he said, gesturing toward her, "Of the Nihuron Peninsula."

"From the Nihuron Peninsula?" an armadillo at Queen Marsenn's side echoed excitedly, "How remarkable! Please, my dear, you must show her majesty a proper Nihian greeting."

He was perhaps seventy, but his eyes were as bright as those of a much younger mammal, quite at odds with the air of dignity that he exuded. "Forgive my own lack of manners; I'm Querys Aytolus, the Queen's Lord of the Treasury."

Eni bowed deeply in the style she could still vividly remember from her youth. "It is my honor to make your acquaintance," she said slowly, speaking in Nihu as she looked up into the queen's face.

Aytolus's delight was obvious, but nothing compared to Marsenn's. "How wonderful!" the giraffe exclaimed, "I had thought you were simply a fellow aficionado of Nihian culture."

Eni suddenly realized why Aza had chosen the particular robe he had gifted her, but she could hardly blame him for wishing to make a good impression on the host of the peace talks. "Then perhaps you ought to speak with the rabbit while Nihian culture still exists," Renald said, glaring down at Eni as though she was a particularly loathsome insect, "The Jaws are an insatiable empire."

"My dear Renald," Queen Marsenn began, but Aza held up one paw.

Eni became aware that every eye in the room had suddenly turned to them, and all other conversation had stopped. "Please, Queen Marsenn, I believe it to be for the best if King Renald and I understand each other," Aza said, and while his voice was still mild it had grown quite firm, "Go on, tell me what you really think."

The rhinoceros stared Aza down, his heavy brows furrowed so deeply that his eyes had almost vanished and his nostrils flaring. "You're a peculiar tiger," he said at last, "I'll expect a stronger grip when we shake tomorrow."

With that, King Renald turned and made his way to the bar. Mammals stood frozen in place for a moment longer before conversation started again in nervous pockets, Aytolus awkwardly drifting away with a mumbled excuse. The cheetah and the lioness Eni had overheard in the theater itself were sneering in Renald's direction, and the members of Renald's delegation were similarly glaring daggers back at Avamezin.

Aza simply chuckled, glancing at the rhino's broad back before turning away from him. "I think we're off to a wonderful start, Queen Marsenn," Aza observed, "I'd dare say he respects me."

He laughed again, and Eni thought she saw a gleam of worry on Kera's face. "He should not have been speaking to you in such a manner," the tigress said in her slightly clumsy Circi.

Sabor scowled and added, "The Saber-General wouldn't—"

"The Saber-General has her own ways of solving problems," Aza interrupted mildly, "And I have mine. King Renald knows I won't be intimidated now. But I believe the intermission must nearly be over."

The tiger's smile thinned and became almost predatory. "Thank you again for the wonderful entertainment, Queen Marsenn," Avamezin added, inclining his head toward the giraffe as his entourage gathered around him, "I can hardly wait for the second act."

Eni fell in line, letting herself drift to the back of the Jaws delegation. Tsar appeared like a shadow at her side, his muzzle twisted into a sour expression. "What is it?" Eni asked, keeping her voice low, "Was there no sign of the… Of what you were looking for?"

She had almost said the word "mage" but it occurred to her that was best left unspoken around curious ears. "No," Tsar said shortly, "There's something. I can't tell."

Eni glanced around, wondering if he had caught a trace of magic from either a member of the Jaws delegation or someone from Renald's. Or perhaps even simply a random member of the thousands of mammals that packed the theater. "Oh," Eni replied, "Do you… Do you want to leave?"

She desperately hoped that the answer would be no, but she was still disappointed by his response. Tsar shook his head, disgust wrinkling his face. "We'll have to sit through the rest of this nonsense."

 

The actor playing Thaniel had a sort of humble charisma that nearly equaled the heroic charm of the actor playing the Slayer, but Eni was barely paying attention. She turned Tsar's words over and over in her mind; she was desperately curious to know what he had meant when he said that there had been something. Her first thought had been that he meant there was a sign of the mage they were hunting, but what if he had sensed something else?

The idea of another monster appearing within the Circle itself should have felt absurd, but it should have been equally unlikely in Ctesiphon. What if something worse than the Zezernak showed up? Eni was tempted to defy everything Tsar had taught her to reach out with her own crude and fumbling magic, and at the thought she could feel a tingle in her core. The threads of her power felt eager and hungry to unravel, and she closed her eyes tightly and concentrated as hard as she could on forcing them back down until the feeling faded. If there really was a monster or a mage nearby the last thing she wanted to do was alert them to her presence, but the temptation felt like an itch she couldn't scratch.

Mercifully, however, Thaniel broke into his big solo number, and all other thoughts were banished from her mind as the play swept her back up into its grip. Eni watched transfixed as the kangaroo sang of how he blamed himself for the bandit attack that had cost the life of Emilina's mother, wholly ignorant of how the princess was close enough to overhear him.

Since I was a lad of no more than five,

My father told me what my life would be.

"I've guarded the royals and you must strive

To do just the same as your grandpa and me."

I sought to make my family proud,

And at sixteen I thought I had made it,

A guard for the royals, as I had vowed,

And all devotions henceforth committed.

I ne'er saw action until that sunlit meadow,

Where the princess there pranced and played.

It seemed assured to ever be the status quo,

But that was nothing but my naïveté.

It was the last day we were unscarred,

The world can see mine, a badge of shame,

But the princess's is surely in her heart,

I know that it is I, who must be to blame.

No one's wise counsel nor any worldly art,

Could absolve a guard who failed his part.

The overlooked clues, and the key detail,

Shall ever haunt me that I have failed.

In sleep of rest where I was enthralled

Stood the sign of bandits I did not see.

And though I'm now captain, admired by all,

I hold titles that will not let me be.

I can never atone for that great shortfall!

I am not worthy of the princess's cheer.

Her lovely smile wounds like piercing spears,

That will endeavor me to hold the tears.

How can she bear to look upon my scarred visage,

And not recall her mother, the queen I failed?

Truly she comes from the most noble lineage.

As a commoner I have surely trailed;

I am not worthy of her kindness or grace,

Nor even to so much as look at her face.

Now duty demands I bury this feeling,

Tear it down, stand firm, and know my place.

And although Yelsin had sworn deference,

The Slayer is yet her father's preference,

And perhaps hers if her feelings are true,

But they both shall choose duty as I must too.




As the song ended and the stage began to rotate for another scene change, Eni glanced around the booth, looking at the faces of the other mammals present. Tsar looked utterly bored, slouching somewhat in his seat, and while he had the worst posture he wasn't alone in his dislike for the play. Sabor's face was twisted in an expression of mild disgust, although the young prince sat primly upright, and Eni thought Kera looked no more than politely interested. Signa seemed to be paying more attention to everyone else than to the play, and Eni briefly locked eyes with the massive polar bear before looking away from his scowling face. Aza alone shared her interest; he was watching keenly as Emilina had a monologue about what she had just learned.

She envied Aza's poise; as far as she could tell his tense confrontation with King Renald hadn't perturbed him at all. He acted as though the mammal who he would be sitting across from the following day when negotiations started hadn't just rudely spoken to him, and Eni wondered what the tiger really thought. From what little Aza had told her about his older brother and his father over the years, she didn't think either one of them was expecting much.

So what was it, then, that Aza was supposed to do? Had he been sent to fail? Eni didn't want to think that her friend's own family would treat him so poorly. If that was true, it would explain why King Renald had been so aggressive, assuming the rhinoceros also knew about the machinations of the Concurrence's royal family. Maybe Renald had expected Aza to rise to the bait and turn their conversation into a fight in a deliberate attempt to ruin the peace talks, but that obviously hadn't happened.

Or what if Avamezin really was in league with Ceslaus?

It was a possibility Eni refused to believe; she was certain that the tiger would never do something so monstrous. He had never shown her anything but kindness from the first time they had met, and she felt certain he couldn't have hidden such a secret from her. But as she glanced over at Aza's face, watching him lean forward in his seat when Duke Yelsin ambushed Thaniel in his quarters and began dueling him, a small and creeping doubt grew in her mind.

Eni became aware of a frown crossing her face and she resisted the urge to shake her head. It's like the Archivist says, Eni thought, Doubt is the first step to discovery. Of course, he had been talking about how a historian should discard their preconceived notions when evaluating something new that had been unearthed, but it seemed equally applicable to figuring out the mystery that had started in Ctesiphon. She told herself, as she looked at Aza one more time and watched as his fingers clutched in excitement at the armrests of his chair as the duel onstage reached its climax, that there were plenty of possibilities, if the tiger was involved, that wouldn't make him a bad mammal.

Eni settled back in her own chair, feeling slightly more at ease, and could barely bear to watch as Thaniel's sword shattered under one of Yelsin's blows and flew from his paw. She had no idea how the play had managed the effect so convincingly, but it looked absolutely real. The kangaroo's face widened with horror as the duke chuckled, lazily placing the tip of his own sword against the guard captain's chest. Eni had read the play before and knew exactly how it would end, but she was still utterly enraptured by the moment, unable to tear her eyes away, and then she heard the voice of the male cheetah again. He was whispering in an even lower voice than before, and the sorrowful music from the orchestra pit as Yelsin stabbed Thaniel was so loud that it should have completely drowned out his voice. It probably would have for just about anyone else, but Eni could hear the words as clearly as if the cheetah was speaking them into her ear.

"The rabbit fancies the Archduke," he said in Jarku, "Do you see how she looks at him?"

Eni's ears flushed, but when the lioness replied in the same tongue her voice was just as low but no less clear. "Shameless," she said, "But male rabbits must be so weak and small, I almost can't—"

The haughty lioness was cut off by a voice Eni had never heard before, speaking Jarku in a voice so deep and with such a powerfully Eastern accent that it could only be Signa. "You disrespect your lord, his guest, and his host," he said, his voice rumbling even at a whisper.

Eni chanced a peek over her shoulder; she wasn't sure if Aza's bodyguard had actually been able to hear the whispered conversation, even though he was standing closer to the gossiping pair, or had simply noticed that they were conversing. She caught a glimpse of the two felines looking suitably abashed to be shamed by the Archduke's personal guard, but Signa himself looked as dour as ever. Perhaps even more so, but Eni quickly looked back out at the stage and hoped that no one had noticed her attention wandering.

It was a ridiculous accusation, but it still took a moment for the blood pounding in Eni's ears to slow down. For Aza's sake, she hoped that it didn't get spread as a rumor, but he didn't seem to have noticed the commotion, his attention still on the stage where the Slayer was coming to Thaniel's rescue by entering dramatically through a window in a great explosion of glass. The music swelled as the wolf picked up Thaniel's broken sword and dueled the vicious duke, the two opponents fighting a brilliantly choreographed battle that moved so rapidly Eni could barely see their blades.

Even with only half a sword, it was clear the Slayer was far more skilled, and at last he maneuvered Yelsin to the edge of a balcony and knocked him to the floor. "You're more loathsome than any monster I've slain," the Slayer said, disgust wrinkling his muzzle as he looked down at the duke.

"I'm all you have left, Slayer. The Scourge has ended, and with it the age of monsters," Yelsin sneered.

His muzzle was dripping with blood in just the same way his voice was dripping with contempt. "The world doesn't need you any longer; you're the only power left every nation combined couldn't stand against. A mammal who can kill abominations an army couldn't is too strong to be allowed to exist. How long until a greater temptress comes along? A sorceress's honeyed words pour into the ears of Aerodan's champion. The wolfram's empire rises amidst the deafened pleas."

"You assume everyone is so coarse as you are, Yelsin. I've never lusted after power," the Slayer replied, but he seemed a bit hesitant, his sharp focus on Yelsin drifting just a bit, which was all the opportunity the duke needed.

Yelsin's paws slowly scrabbled across the flagstones until they found the broken off tip of Thaniel's sword, which he concealed in his palm before the Slayer looked back at him. "Conceited pretensions," Yelsin said with a dismissive snort, "An easy statement to make, from your lofty perch above us mere mortals. You were handed power, but everyone else, from the lowest commoners to the highest nobles, was denied it. We strive for a fraction of what you have, and you have the temerity to insult our efforts. Striving for more is the blessing the Mother gave us when she raised us above being mere beasts. But it's also a curse, and perhaps you understand that much. To want what you can't have?"

He leered at the Slayer, his open-mouthed smile revealing bloodied teeth. "My ambitions were always modest. The rule of a single city would have been enough. But you? I can't even imagine what you lust for."

Duke Yelsin turned his head and spat in the direction of a portrait of Princess Emilina that hung on the wall. "Or perhaps I can," he said.

"A lady's honor is worthy of appreciation," the Slayer said stiffly, and Yelsin laughed.

"Go on, then. I can help you 'appreciate' her. All the arrangements have already been made for the wedding; what does it matter if someone else is swapped in for the groom? I needn't sit on the throne myself; I can—"

"Enough," the Slayer said, his voice a low growl, "You'll stand trial for your crimes, Yelsin. On your feet."

"As you wish," Yelsin replied, and as he stood up he staggered a bit toward the Slayer as though he was off-balance.

The paw concealing the broken sword tip shot out surprisingly fast, aimed right for the Slayer's heart, but the wolf's arm was faster. The hilt of Thaniel's sword came up so quickly it was a blur, and there was a wet and meaty sound as what was left of the sword plunged into Yelsin's chest.

The duke looked down, his muzzle opened in utter surprise, and he managed to croak a single word. "You…" he coughed, spraying bloody red droplets.

"Saw you pick up the tip of the sword," the Slayer said grimly.

Yelsin groaned in despair and collapsed to the ground with a crashing finality. A widening red puddle started spreading around him, and he stopped moving completely. The Slayer looked down at him for a long moment before the door to Thaniel's chamber flew open. "Master Slayer!" Emilina cried, her chest heaving as she rushed in.

A pair of guards holding a small battering ram were visible behind her, explaining how suddenly the door had opened. "Oh, I feared the worst!" she said, seeming to be nearly on the verge of tears, and then she caught sight of Thaniel.

Emilina clutched at her mouth, letting out a stifled scream. "Did… Did Duke Yelsin kill him?"

Thaniel did not move, but the Slayer walked over to the guard and crouched at his side. "He still lives," the Slayer said, "But not for much longer."

"You must do something!" Emilina cried, grabbing the Slayer and hugging his arm, her eyes wet with tears, "I cannot live without him, I cannot! I… I never thought…"

She wept, her tears falling on the guard captain's body. "Please, Master Slayer, there must be something you can do."

"There is a magic I know," the Slayer said quietly, his voice almost sorrowful, "His wounds can be healed."

"Then I beg of you, you must do it!" Emilina said.

The Slayer shook his head. "You do not understand," the wolf replied, "I can be the conduit for this magic, but I cannot do it myself. You must."

"I— I know nothing of magic," Emilina protested, "But I will do whatever I can."

"There is a condition," the Slayer said solemnly, "If you cannot bear to live without Captain Thaniel, your willpower can save him. But it must be pure."

Emilina looked at the Slayer, confusion evident in her face. "Only if you love him, in your heart of hearts, will it be enough," the Slayer explained, "He must be first above all others, or else it will fail. You must… You must want him more than anyone else."

The Slayer's face was stoic, but his paw seemed to tremble ever so slightly. "Oh, Master Slayer," Emilina sighed.

"Duke Yelsin was right about one thing," the Slayer said, his voice hardening, "I must leave. I cannot stay, no matter how much I might wish to."

Emilina nodded, and then kissed his cheek softly. "You are even more noble than I ever imagined, dear Slayer," she said, tears streaming down her face, "Now please, help me save Thaniel."

The wolf nodded, dabbing his fingers into the wound in the guard's side and scrawling arcane symbols on the floor with the blood. Somehow the strange shapes caught the stage lighting and seemed to burn with their own interior fire as the Slayer began chanting nonsense words in a low voice. The music was low and tense at first, but it grew louder and louder as he worked.

The Slayer clapped his paws together and beams of light shot throughout the theater, illuminating Thaniel's body with brilliant white light that seared Eni's eyes. The Slayer picked up Thaniel's paw in his own and then gestured for Emilina to grab his free one. "Now imagine all your love for him!" the Slayer cried, "Focus!"

The music began to rise in pitch without ever reaching a crescendo, and Thaniel floated off the floor as the stage lights began pulsing madly. A low and eerie fog crept across the floor and swirled around him even as the symbols the Slayer had drawn grew ever brighter. Thaniel opened his mouth and light seemed to pour from it, a great beam reaching up into the rafters.

And then, all at once, everything stopped. The music came to a halt at the same moment that the lights winked out, and there was a brief moment of utter darkness. Brilliant spots floated in front of Eni's eyes, and she blinked to clear them before the stage lights came back on. Thaniel was standing a bit unsteadily, Emilina clutching at him, but the Slayer was gone. "He did it," Emilina breathed, "He saved you."

"No," Thaniel said, shaking his head, "You did. I… I don't know how to describe it. But I could feel what you felt. Your love brought me back."

Emilina hugged Thaniel tightly and then kissed him so passionately that he seemed swept up by it, wrapping his paws gently around the sides of her muzzle. "But what will your father say?" Thaniel asked breathlessly once the princess finally broke off the kiss, "What will—"

She silenced him with another kiss, far shorter but no less sweet-looking. "My father will learn to live with my decision," Emilina said, a regal tone to her voice, "I've chosen you."

Thaniel looked about, seeming to pay attention to the world beyond the princess for the first time since his resurrection. "But where has the Slayer gone?" he asked, sounding puzzled.

Emilina gasped, and then pulled at Thaniel's wrist. "He must be leaving. Hurry!"

They ran toward the door in one of the walls of the set, which began rotating again for the final scene change. They burst out onto an exquisite replica of a street in Zergun, cobbled in stone and with small apartments and shops overhanging it. Dozens of mammals were going about their business, nudging each other and whispering as they caught sight of the Slayer. The gate out of Zergun was visible at one end, and the wolf was striding purposefully toward it. "Wait!" Emilina cried as she and Thaniel came onto the scene, "Master Slayer, wait!"

The Slayer halted and turned to look at her. "I could not let you go without saying goodbye," Emilina said.

"Nor I without thanking you for all you've done," Thaniel added, squeezing Emilina gently.

"The Slayer's leaving?" one of the extras said, and it got picked up by everyone on the street.

Mammals began weeping openly as they surrounded the Slayer, begging him to stay, and then a lime light snapped onto him and he sang his goodbyes. The wolf onstage dragged out the last note more sweetly than Eni would have thought possible, a single tear rolling down his perfect muzzle, and then he passed through the gate out of Zergun.

For a moment, Emilina and Thaniel hugged each other, weeping openly as they watched him go. The extras were crying in just the same way, some dabbing at their eyes with handkerchiefs even as their sorrow had made them fall to their knees. The stage lighting suggested a sunset perfectly, a warm orange glow suffusing the set and lengthening the shadows of the actors.

And then the curtains closed.

Roaring applause filled the theater, which only grew louder a few moments later when the curtains re-opened and the entire cast of the play was there, including the actor who had played Yelsin despite his convincing onstage death, linked paw to paw. Like a wave, beginning from the seats closest to the stage, the audience stood up to clap and cheer, and Eni did the same. Eni noticed Tsar was rather unenthusiastically putting his paws together, but he did stand with her and everyone else in the private booth.

Eni wasn't sure how long the applause went on as the actors took bow after bow; the theater had become so loud that it was impossible to think. Someone was announcing the names of each actor and the character they'd play but since Eni could barely hear the words she doubted anyone else could either.

Once the audience had finished clapping and cheering itself hoarse, beginning to shuffle out of the theater, Aza turned to Eni. "There's a reception afterward, but I'm afraid it's only for members of the delegations," he said apologetically, "Unless, of course, you've changed your mind?"

There was a hopeful note to his question, and Eni regretfully shook her head. "I need to know what the Archivist has to say first," Eni said, and she was sure Aza could hear the apology in her voice.

The tiger nodded, and although he looked disappointed he waved it away. "Of course, of course," he said, "I understand. But there'll be a recess from the talks tomorrow at noon, if you'd like to stop by and see if your answer has arrived."

A sudden grin split his face. "And depending on what he says, you could join my delegation as a translator and a scribe that afternoon," Aza added.

Eni laughed. "I'd love to, if I can," she said, "Thank you again for the opportunity to see the show tonight."

She made her formal farewell to the Archduke and his family, each of the tigers doing the same, and then regretfully walked after a guard dressed in a Tormurghast uniform leading her and the real Slayer out of the maze of corridors that linked the private booth in the theater with the embassy. Aza and his entourage went the other direction, perhaps back to the same comfortable room they had gone to during the intermission or perhaps something even grander. The Slayer's muzzle wrinkled briefly as he undid the top few buttons of his tunic's high collar, but he stayed as silent as a shadow, falling back to a step behind Eni. Eni didn't speak herself, watching the broad back of their escort.

Once they had been led outside of Castle Titus, the guard dutifully returning their satchels with the clothes they had worn into the embassy, Eni turned to the Slayer and asked, "How accurate was it? Besides the singing, I mean."

She spoke the words lightly, trying to make it a bit of a joke, but Eni was genuinely curious to learn more of the truth about The Sunset Story and the last time the Slayer had been known to history. Tsar glowered at her, annoyance etched into his features. "You want to know what it was really like?" he asked, "My flesh was rotting off my bones when I walked into Zergun. Venom. Enough to kill a hundred mammals and make me look like a leprous beggar. Everyone who saw me ran away screaming like I was one, too. No one stuck around to bother learning what I did, so no one knew the monster was dead. I dragged what was left of my body to the castle because they needed to know. I had to warn the king to clean up the monster's remains before its blood got in the groundwater and damned them all. I had to fight my way through the King's guards and his daughter Emilina's idiot fiancé before the stubborn fool would listen. I collapsed after telling him and I didn't wake up for days. The instant I came to, the king demanded I marry Emilina. I wouldn't, so his guards threw me off the ramparts."

Eni stared at him, unable to keep the disbelief off her face. "But— But King Sesalon threw a feast for you!" she said, "You were the guest of honor. The entire city celebrated for a week!"

The Slayer shrugged. "An imitator who attended in my place while he celebrated the grand triumph. Politics," he said, practically spitting the last word.

Eni's heart sank in disappointment.

It was a matter of historical record that Princess Emilina had indeed married the captain of her royal guard, but from the sound of it virtually everything in the play had simply been invented for the sake of the story. Eni walked in silence a moment, retracing the steps back to Rongen's tower, and then she turned to the Slayer again. "Did you ever think that maybe it's what he wished he had done?" she asked, "Maybe Sesalon regretted treating you so poorly. Maybe he was trying his best to be a good king and… And came up short."

Tsar grunted, fidgeting with his cloak. "Regrets don't change the past," he said.

Eni didn't have a retort for that; it seemed better to give up trying to encourage the Slayer and simply switch topics. "Did you sense anything in the second act?" she asked.

The wolf was silent a moment as they continued down the street. Revelers pressed them in on either side, whooping and cheering as they celebrated. Eni saw a badger in one of the pretty dresses that looked vaguely like a City Guard uniform sharing a dance with a somewhat older male badger to the encouragement of his friends, and young mammals darted around underfoot playing with pinwheels and clutching at sweets. Tsar avoided them all, and even in his gifted outfit he seemed colorless and out of place.

Eni spotted more than a few mammals looking appreciatively at her own clothes, a young sheep even telling her friends in a voice loud enough for Eni to make out that she wanted a Nihian robe herself. No one was paying the Slayer any attention though, letting him pass without a second glance.

Tsar frowned but didn't answer immediately. Once they had passed onto a less crowded street and the noise somewhat lessened, he nodded slowly. "There was someone, but…"

He trailed off, seeming to gather his thoughts, and then he spoke again. "They knew who I was and wanted me to know they were there. Like a light you can see out of the corner of your eye, but no matter how fast you turn it's already gone. It was mocking me."

"But… That shouldn't be possible, right? Who could possibly do that?" Eni asked with some anxiety; the idea of someone strong enough to fool the Slayer's senses made Eni's heart go cold.

If there was a mage, it was most likely the same mage Tsar had somehow sensed earlier that day, but Eni knew she was only guessing. She hadn't noticed anything at the wall or in the theater, and she desperately wished she could be more useful; so far as she could tell she hadn't helped Tsar at all. His expression had turned inward as he seemed to ignore her, but the look of his features made the grip of fear in Eni's chest grow tighter. He looked baffled, his brow wrinkling, and when he didn't say anything for several blocks Eni couldn't stand it any longer. "It— It couldn't have been someone in the booth with us, right?" Eni blurted desperately, hoping that Tsar's answer would at least exonerate her friend

"Perhaps," Tsar said, "I can't be sure."

"So what's next?" Eni asked.

"We go back to the embassy tomorrow. We keep our ears open," Tsar said simply, and he didn't say anything more.

The rest of the walk back to Rongen's tower didn't take very long, but as they approached the gate, which Eni noticed had been repaired, Tsar pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked it. Eni thought about commenting but decided against it; the wolf seemed to be in a sour mood and she doubted a joke would improve it. When they passed into the tower itself, Eni saw Rongen sleeping in a chair by his fireplace and loudly snoring, a blanket across his legs. The raccoon looked shockingly frail and delicate in sleep, the light of his fireplace making shadows dance across his face in a rather unflattering way that only emphasized his age. A notebook not too different from Eni's own had tumbled out of his paws and to the floor, open to a page that showed columns of densely packed calculations under a cross-section of his airship. He was still clutching a pen in one paw, and Eni made sure she made as little noise as possible as she went up the stairs.

She wasn't sure if the Slayer was doing the same, or if he was simply walking as he normally did; his footsteps always seemed much softer than those of anyone else. As they ascended the spiraling steps that led back to the guest rooms, Eni noticed a door on one of the landings was open, dim candle light burning beyond it, but Tsar didn't pause. Eni glanced in curiously as they passed; it looked almost like a textile factory. A number of massive looms lined one wall, with a complicated series of silk skeins that were being woven into enormous sheets of fabric, and the largest sewing machine Eni had ever seen stood at the center of the room. Bins full of scraps of fabric lined the remaining walls, some labeled and some not, and Eni guessed that it was where Rongen was making the envelope of his airship.

Tsar seemed utterly uninterested, though, and Eni tore her eyes away and kept following him until they reached the guest rooms. Once he was outside the room in which he had spent the previous night, the Slayer suddenly pulled his cloak off, throwing it into a hamper tucked into an alcove next to the door. His tunic quickly followed, and Eni immediately averted her eyes as the wolf began stripping off his trousers. "Wh-Why?" she sputtered without thinking, her eyes squeezed shut and her ears burning.

"Clothes were uncomfortable" he said, as though it should have been obvious, and then Eni heard the click of his door shutting.

Eni looked down into the hamper and saw that he had indeed taken all of his clothes off. She supposed that Rongen's servants would probably be back the following day or the day afterwards to once again clean, cook, and do laundry, but Tsar obviously didn't care for the clothes Avamezin had gifted him. Eni picked up the cloak, beginning to neatly fold it so she could set it aside and spare the laundress the trouble of washing something Tsar would probably never choose to wear again, and then paused.

As Eni held the fabric in her paws, it occurred to her that she had just seen for herself that Rongen had a room full of all the sewing equipment anyone could possibly want and she had Tsar's measurements neatly recorded in her journal. A flare of excitement went up her spine as she realized what she could do; the mammals of Zergun might have been ungrateful after the Slayer completed his final labor, but Eni was not. Considering how ragged his only set of clothes was, Eni was sure Tsar would appreciate a new outfit as long as it was comfortable. Ideas started filling her head of all the possibilities, and the hare could barely force herself to change into something more practical first before creeping back down the stairs.














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